MANHATTAN, Kan. (Tribune News Service) — For most college football coaches, Year 2 is when they truly start to prove themselves after taking a new job.
But that’s far from a universal truth.
Some coaches, like Kansas State’s Chris Klieman, win right away. After guiding the Wildcats to eight victories last season with a roster that failed to produce a single NFL draft pick for the first time in nearly three decades, few fans are wondering what he can accomplish in Manhattan. Instead, they are more interested in what’s next.
It’s a fascinating question. The last K-State coach to exceed expectations in his first season was Ron Prince, who won seven games in 2006, but things didn’t go well for him afterward. He was out by Year 3. Klieman appears to have more staying power, as he has won the respect of veteran players and significantly upgraded the Wildcats’ recruiting efforts. His future seems bright.
But K-State was picked seventh in the preseason Big 12 poll and this will be a difficult year for everyone to navigate because of the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps he does have something to prove in Year 2.
One thing is for sure: Klieman's approach isn’t changing. Ask the former North Dakota State coach what his biggest accomplishment was during his first season with the Wildcats, and he chooses not to trumpet K-State’s thrilling victory over Oklahoma or the team’s trip to the Liberty Bowl. His focus is on the bigger picture.
“I would say the relationships that we, as a staff, built with the players,” Klieman said earlier this week. “It takes a while to earn trust. It takes a while to hold somebody accountable, as well as know that you still love them. That doesn’t happen overnight. It’s still happening and still is a work in progress because we missed so much time in the spring. That’s something, as a staff, that we’re most proud of is that fact that it feels like we’ve been around these guys for a number of years, not just a little over a year.”
The bond between player and head coach could be a difference-maker for the Wildcats this season.
While other teams in the Big 12 dealt with coaching turnover and roster changes during the offseason, K-State brings back experience where it matters most. Skylar Thompson is back at quarterback. Wyatt Hubert, Justin Hughes and Elijah Sullivan return on defense. The entire roster seems eager to take the field for Klieman.
Former K-State offensive lineman Scott Frantz only got to play one season for Klieman, but he thinks he has the answer.
“The Klieman era was definitely the highlight of my time at Kansas State,” Frantz said during an interview last spring. “He came in here and changed around so much stuff and he made football really fun my last year. I love that guy and I love that staff. That was my favorite memory, just being part of that regime, even if it was only for a short time.”
He won’t be picking against Klieman any time soon.
“I guarantee you Klieman and his system will get those guys ready, even if it is a quick turnaround without spring practice,” Frantz said. “They are going to be competing and winning no matter who they have lined up out there.”
Current players are also praising Klieman for the way he handled an unusual offseason, filled with COVID scares and racial unrest across the country.
Not only did he remain in contact with K-State players while they were spread out across various states in quarantine, but he supported them when they returned to campus. He helped his team navigate an unprecedented week over the summer when they demanded change on K-State’s campus following a racially charged tweet from a fellow student. Then he walked with them and spoke at a peaceful protest for racial equality that was organized by K-State athletes.
He even provided a home for sophomore receiver Joshua Youngblood when his family was unable to care for him following offseason surgery.
“I feel like we have the best head coach ever,” K-State safety Wayne Jones said. “When you’ve got a good head coach, it just makes you want to go (all out) all the time for him. I’d do anything for Coach Klieman and his staff.”
Added Wyatt Hubert: “Every decision he makes, he does it for us players. You can’t name a better coach than him. Just having a head coach that makes all his decisions based off his players’ interest is something that gets us so fired up and just makes us realize that Coach Klieman gives it all for us, so we have to give it all for him.”
No K-State player has blossomed under Klieman more than Thompson. The quarterback seemed low on confidence during his sophomore season under former coach Bill Snyder, but he emerged as an alpha dog as a junior and is now the face of the offense.
Thompson credits for Klieman for much of that success. After a few short months playing under him, he went from worrying about getting replaced by a backup quarterback to striving to become the next Carson Wentz or Easton Stick, NFL quarterbacks that played for Klieman at North Dakota State.
His ability to remain even keel regardless of the shifting world around him has impressed Thompson the most.
As long as he continues to doing that, Year 2 will probably be another successful one for Klieman.
“It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions, but through it all, Coach Klieman has been right here the whole time,” Thompson said. “I think that’s one thing I’m super, super thankful for and just blessed to be in a situation with him as my football coach.”
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